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New Efforts Needed to Prevent Terrorism, Panel Says

Report by bipartisan task force urges better security at U.S. ports, roads and railways.

October 25, 2002|Vicki Kemper | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Enormous logistical challenges and widespread complacency have stalled homeland security efforts, leaving the U.S. "dangerously unprepared to prevent and respond" to another terrorist attack, an independent task force warns in a new report.

Yet the Bush administration's preparations for war against Iraq only increase the likelihood of an attack against Americans involving weapons of mass destruction, according to the 17-member bipartisan group, which includes two Nobel laureates, two former secretaries of State and two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"If our foreign policy requires that action be taken against Iraq, we have to be prepared for retaliation," said former Sen. Warren B. Rudman, co-chairman of the task force, which was sponsored by the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations.

The group's report, to be released today, recommends immediate action to better secure the nation's ports, roads and railways. Although intensive security measures have been implemented at airports since last year's terrorist attacks, "a weapon of mass destruction could well be hidden" in shipping containers, trucks and trains, the report says.

Government officials also must redouble their efforts to prepare police, fire and emergency medical personnel to respond to a bioterrorist attack and to better link local, state and federal authorities, the report says. In addition, it says National Guard units should be trained and deployed to impose civil order in the aftermath of such an attack.

While the creation of a Department of Homeland Security has stalled over disagreements between President Bush and Democratic leaders in Congress, task force members were careful to avoid assessing blame for what they consider a dangerous lack of progress in homeland security efforts.

"There is a serious lack of urgency about moving on homeland security in some areas that do not require legislation," former Sen. Gary Hart, the task force's other co-chairman, said in an interview.

Rudman also called on governors, mayors and other local officials to get more involved in homeland security efforts.

Hart, a Democrat from Colorado, and Rudman, a New Hampshire Republican, have been calling for similar actions since months before terrorist hijackers flew commercial airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and crashed in a Pennsylvania field Sept. 11, 2001, killing about 3,000 people.

An earlier commission led by the two former senators warned in January 2001 that the nation was vulnerable to a terrorist attack. It recommended then that the federal government be reorganized around a homeland security mission.

Now that both the White House and Congress have adopted many of their proposals, Hart and Rudman clearly are frustrated -- and concerned -- by the lack of progress.

"I don't know what we need in this country," Rudman said in an interview. "It's not a question of if" there will be another, even more deadly terrorist attack against the United States. "It's a question of when."

Yet, particularly in the middle of the country, "people think of this as an East Coast / West Coast problem," he added.

The report decries "signs that Americans are lapsing back into complacency."

Overcoming such complacency will require more than increased federal funding, intensive training and improved coordination among federal, state and local governments, Hart and Rudman said Thursday.

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